The Yellow Sea (2011) – Blu-ray review
A thriller whose social subtext and Hitchcockian premise aren’t enough to stop The Yellow Sea becoming yet another of Korean cinema’s familiar kill frenzies.
The Yellow Sea
(Na Hong-jim, Kor, 2011)
In theory, South Korean cinema is as diverse as any other in the world, and yet most of the country’s output which picks up UK distribution tends to be the ultra-violent revenge thrillers of Jacobean intensity. So it is that The Yellow Sea, which starts out promisingly as a drama centred on the plight of a displaced joseonjok (the widely reviled illegal immigrants who travel across the Yellow Sea from China), soon manages to revert the type into an insane and scarcely comprehensible bout of bloodshed.
Split into four chapters, the first two benefit from an exceptional slow-burn tension, as joseonjok anti-hero Gu-Nam reluctantly takes on a commission as a hitman in order to stave off spiralling debt. Yet when he arrives, his intended victim is holed up in a fortress-like apartment – and then there’s the distraction of Gu-nam’s missing wife; part of the reason for taking the job is to track her down. As the amateur killer alternates between staking out the joint and playing detective, it feels like this is building to something epic, especially when the hit takes a really unexpected turn.
And then… all of the possibilities (has he been chosen because the victim has something to do with his wife? Or just because he’s an expendable nobody?) unravel because director Na Hong-jin abandons the stealthy approach. Suddenly, there’s an influx of new characters – criminal bosses, axe-wielding henchmen, bemused cops – and Gu-Nam becomes the pinball being knocked about by the caprices of what turns out to be, by the standards of Korean movie gangland, a rather ordinary day at the office.
Sure, it looks amazing. Hong-jin has a tremendously steely, energetic style and comes up with not one but two exhilarating chase sequences whose outrageous implausibility is somehow neutered by their sheer style. As for the fights – well, I lost count of the number of times characters go at each other with knives, axes and even, gloriously, a dog bone. But overkill (literally) sets in during a near two-and-a-half-hour run time that the narrative doesn’t warrant. Like I Saw The Devil, the repetition gradually goes from being shocking to distasteful to darkly funny, as characters refuse to die from multiple stab wounds or keep evading their captors through blind chance.
The Yellow Sea is out on Blu-ray this week from Bounty Films.